Making 6-Figures As A Travel Nurse Is The New Norm

Rick Martinez

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When I first became a nurse (back in 1995), I made less than I made as a bartender.

While the bartending job helped me get through school, I must admit it was a tad disappointing to face those facts.

But that was then, and this is now. Nursing, specifically travel nursing, has morphed in so many ways since then. Notably is the amount of money RNs can and do make.

Travel nursing has a lot of advantages these days, including high salaries, stipends and bonuses, and the chance to work in super cool locations like NYC, Miami, or Denver, Colorado, in the winter. Even better is that you're not bound to a single place for longer than you like.

But beyond those "cool" factors, the burning question remains: do travel nurses really make better money than other nurses?

The simple answer is yes. Yes, they do and likely will continue to be compensated better than staff RNs. But it's not as cut and dry as one may think. Several factors go into the salary equation, and in this article, we'll break it down into easy-to-understand chunks.

Bottom line: does a travel RN make more dinero?

Generally speaking, the answer is yes. Travel nurses make more than a standard staff RN. And there are a few reasons why.

1) Supply and Demand: Without getting into economics 101, the current situation is simple. There is a significant need across the US for nurses. The reasons for the need vary, but we all know that the pandemic has shined a light on shortages. There are travel nurse companies that specialize in these types of contracts, and these usually pay more, way more, than staff nursing can and ever will.

It's not uncommon to now see an hourly wage for a travel RN well above $90 per hour, with OT rates well into the $100's.

2) Perks and incentives: As an RN, you may see this displayed as a "blended rate." All that means is that your take-home pay is a total package that may include base rate, stipends, incentives, and bonuses.

Plus, many times, these extra add-ons are non-taxable. This means that the travel nurse keeps more of what they are being paid. And ultimately, this bumps annual income into realms never seen before.

Let's break it down: How much does a travel nurse actually make?

To be clear, salaries are crazy high right now, so I'll refer to a few sources so we can start to wrap our heads around a general salary for a travel RN.

According to Indeed.com, the average annual salary for a travel nurse is $113,000 in 2021. That's a fact; just follow the links I shared. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics places the average salary of a staff RN at about $75k per year. On its basis, the difference is about $38k per year or roughly $3k per month.

Huge, enormous, giant difference.

The numbers don't lie, and fact is the fact. Travel nurses, in general, make significantly more than their staff nurse counterparts. Same job, different circumstances. Although the exact salary you can expect to make as a travel nurse will vary widely based on where you choose to work, what type of nursing position it is, and the length of the contract, you can surely expect to take home and keep lots more.

I always recommend that you consult with your accountant, financial planner, or someone who is professionally versed in the nuances of pay and money. You'll want to ensure that the route you take aligns with your short and long-term financial goals.

Where can travel nurses get the biggest bang for the buck?

The truth is that some locations pay better than others.

But like all else mentioned here, certain things will need to be considered besides the amount per hour. Things like the cost of living, the type of facility, and of course, whether or not it's a crisis job or not.

All these matter not just in what you'll actually keep per hour, but more importantly, your happiness.

As an example, I'm currently working on a humanitarian contract in the desert of New Mexico. It's a unique assignment, without a doubt. My pay rate is similar to most crisis contracts, but the trade-off is the place and environment. What I mean is that I work in a medical tent in the desert serving a refugee population. Plus, the local town where we're housed is tiny.

For me, it's not about the location, rather about the work.

For others, location is prime, and money is second. On that note, California is generally a state that pays really well for travelers, but the housing costs can take a nice bite out of that pay.

All of this being said, Zip Recruiter lists the highest paying cities for travel RNs in 2021:

  1. San Jose, CA $120,339
  2. Oakland, CA $118,971
  3. Tanaina, AK $118,482
  4. Wasilla, AK $118,480
  5. Summersville, WV $118,276
  6. Hayward, CA$116,479$56.00
  7. Jackson, WY $116,354
  8. Norwalk, CT $116,047
  9. Seattle, WA $115,676
  10. Vallejo, CA $115,648

Remember, though, the local cost of living can and usually does have a significant impact on what you will actually keep.

Let's talk specialties now

Not all types of travel nursing pay the same.

Meaning the more specialized you are, the more you're likely to make. That and being prepped to roll into an assignment are vital things to note.

So what exactly are the highest-paid specialties for travel RNs? Well, for that, we again turn to our trusty friend, Ziprecruiter.

Highest Paying Travel Nurse Specialties in 2021

Nurse Type : Annual Salary

  1. ICU $138,909
  2. PACU $124,195
  3. L & D $114,690
  4. Cath Lab $114,352
  5. OR $113,613

It's more than just the paycheck, though, right?

If I'm speaking honestly, the answer is likely no.

Year over year, nurses have been the most respected yet lowest paid members of the healthcare teams. Sure, the work is gratifying, but gratitude doesn't feed or clothe my family. So now that wages have dramatically increased, I indeed will seek out the highest bidder for my talents.

And travel nursing is just what the doctor ordered.

The final word

Given that travel nurses, in general, make significantly more than their staff nurse counterparts, it's not surprising to see why so many healthcare professionals are looking for work as a traveler.

When choosing this path, you should consider certain things, such as whether or not the contract is crisis-related and what type of nursing position it is.

For example, I'm currently working in a humanitarian contract with refugees, which pays well but doesn't have many amenities nearby. If location matters most to you, California will provide high-paying jobs at higher cost-of-living rates.

Regardless of where you choose to work, becoming specialized in one area can lead to bigger paychecks depending on your specialty field.

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I'm a freelance writer and a nurse, exploring the world one beer, donut, and experience at a time. Writing about the travel nurse industry and healthcare, with the occasional emphasis on donuts. #NomNom

San Antonio, TX
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